Sunday, August 28, 2005

Your Program of Programs

Tonight, I saw a bit of New York City that I've never seen before. It's a big place, it happens, but this wasn't a destination I could reach by subway. I went to see a highlight reel of "Your Program of Programs" a cable access television show hosted by a professor of mine from college, Kestutis Nakas, between 1982 and 1983. In attendence were current and former denizens of an East Village art scene that only somewhat exists today. As Kestutis said, after the screening and explaining how he got guests to show up for a little watched cabled access show, "People didn't know what cable access was, back then. You could call somebody and say, 'I have TV show, you want to be on it?'"

The highlight reel was damned funny. Kestutis worked as host, on a deliberately shabby set, with a worn desk that had a "nuclear button" on it, because nuclear war was serious, back then. His guests plugged Sonic Youth concerts and products that could tease and strip your hair in one easy step. Kestutis read the news, deadpan, dressed as a clown named "News Clown."

But, even better was the audience. People who had been on the show were there. Nicky Paraiso, who hosts the La Mama Cafe was there. I've worked with him before. In fact, when I met him, I asked if he new Kestutis and many stories were told. I got the two in touch, a few years ago. Even though Nicky hosts at a cabaret space where hundreds of theatre people pass through every year, he was nice enough to remember my name and I take that not as a sign of me leaving indellible impressions but of Nicky's sincere desire to encourage new art.

During the screening, the crowd hooted and hollered at things I didn't understand, sharing a big in joke about the 80s art scene in Manhattan. I hooted and hollered about hearing that Soho lofts were renting for $1,000 a month. I know, I know, inflation. But, if I could get a Soho loft for $1,000 a month, you'd better believe that I'd live in Soho.

The crowd celebrated performers who had died during the 80s. I gather that at least five people who participated in the chaos of "Your Program of Programs" are no longer living. These are not old folks, by the way. Many of them died young, I assume, from hard living and it's hard not think that, among this menagerie of lovable freaks and outcasts and trannies that AIDs didn't take some toll. Does AIDs now fall under the "hard living" category?

When I first saw Kestutis at the pre-show party, he told me, almost teary, that he was in a room full of people that he'd shared an important part of his life with, but hadn't seen since 1982. "I've seen you more recently," he said. We hadn't seen each other since I graduated college in 1997. I didn't talk to him much. I left him to old friends.

But, I also didn't have to talk to him much because his old friends had no problem chatting up strangers. They were jovial and light and friendly and wonderful people.

I hate to romanticize pasts that I didn't live. New York has changed. The East Village is trendy and expensive and utterly safe and I gather it wasn't, back in the 70s and 80s. Oh well. It's still a cool part of town, I still have fun every time I go. My pal Lea always tells my that New York isn't the same city that it was when Madonna scraped and starved her way to fame here. The city is wildly more expensive and far more corporate these days. Yet, talking to Kestutis' old colleagues, I gathered that they had the same problems I've faced and that they also never had enough money and they also found it difficult to find an artistic community and they also struggled in a city so large that even if you're really out there, you're kind of annonymous.

Whatever they did, south of 14th street and east of Broadway, 23 years ago, brought them all back tonight. There were about 100 people there. I walked out of the screening, feeling weird, wondering why I don't't have a community like that and why I was so out of the city's loop. Suddenly, a person grabbed and hugged me. His name is Kenyon, he plays in a band called Unisex Salon. I'll be checking out their show next Thursday. Kenyon used to work at Forbes, in another department, but we hit it off because of tattoos, theatre, music, and our 8th floor gym. He left Forbes awhile back. Last time I saw him was at David Byrne's Carnegie Hall concert in 2004. We bump into each other because we like the same things. In a city this big, you can bump into people just out of shared taste. Weird.

But, then, shared taste is what brought the night together and what brought Kestutis' rabble rousing bunch to the same area, to work together, two decades ago.

To add to it all, I spent the afternoon watching a DVD of my co-blogger Jon E. performing with his Second City improv class and I also read his funny and subversive little children's book about anatomical parts trying to find their human.

The struggle continues. But I was damned glad to see how the struggle went, awhile back, in the lower east side.


At 11:17 AM , Blogger tifanie said...

Amazing. I would have loved to have been there. *Sigh*

At 10:52 AM , Blogger adriana said...

oh man, me too!!! it sounds like it was just amazing, to see Kestutis from that perspective. please, if you see him again, send my warmest regards. *sigh*

At 11:19 AM , Blogger Jessie said...

i like the way you see the world. personally, i don't give the east village these days as much credit as you do, but I think you're mostly right that it's mostly always a struggle and in retrospect we'll all turn out all right.


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